Not a good sign: Lawyers getting involved between NASCAR, new Race Team Alliance

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When the new Race Team Alliance introduced itself to the world July 7, everything seemed like sunny skies and good feelings going forward in the world of NASCAR. Everyone spoke positively, optimistically and seemed to be full of confidence that all — owners, drivers, teams and NASCAR — would benefit.

Even NASCAR president Mike Helton said during an impromptu press conference last Friday at New Hampshire that there was no animosity between the sanctioning body and the new upstart ownership group.

“I wanted to dispel the perception of animosity to start with and then back that up with saying we’re going to do business as usual,” Helton said. “I think everybody in the garage area knows how we do our business and the role they play in it, and so we’ll continue to do it that way.”

But less than a week after Helton’s comments, the first salvo of what potentially could become an eventual antagonistic relationship has been fired, and it boils down to what oftentimes is one of the nastiest words in professional sports:

Lawyers.

The amicable original intention of the RTA has now been responded to by International Speedway Corporation, NASCAR’s sister company, as well as NASCAR itself. Both sibling companies have made it very clear to the RTA that if there is to be any communication between both sides, it will be through attorneys, not man-to-man between RTA boss and Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman and NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France or second-in-command Helton.

As the old saying goes, can you see where this could potentially go to hell in a handbasket very quickly when lawyers are involved?

Kauffman, at least publicly, doesn’t seem overly concerned, according to an interview with Bob Pockrass of SportingNews.com late Wednesday.

“It’s not an animosity thing, it’s just a formality thing,” Kauffman told Pockrass. “NASCAR is a big company and they’re very sensitive legally. They’ve had experience (with antitrust) and they want to be very formal and correct in the initial stages. … It’s understandable. Hopefully as time goes on and both sides get used to each other a little bit, those barriers (will) tend to go down. I think it will be fine.”

The RTA’s original intention of pooling resources, cutting expenses, etc., is quite noble indeed. Even with countless cost-cutting measures, including large-scale layoffs in recent years, plus teams folding throughout all three primary NASCAR series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks – the cost of operating teams remains extremely expensive.

Only 10 years ago, the average team operational budget in Sprint Cup was in the $10 to $15 million per year range – just to competitive.

Today, that number is more in the $20 to $25 million per year range — again, just to be competitive. And when you have multiple teams within an organization, that cost can quickly reach upwards of $100 million for a four-car group like Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing and up to $75 million for a three-car operation like Joe Gibbs Racing or Richard Childress Racing.

For all the good things NASCAR has done to reduce costs, including the one-engine rule, the interchangeable Car of Tomorrow and its Generation 6 successor, it still costs a lot for team owners to remain in the game.

That’s why it’s not surprising some teams have folded or suspended operations, including at least two Sprint Cup teams this season already.

That’s also why so many sponsors have come and gone over the last six or seven years, and have forced teams to go from having one primary sponsor all season long to a number of different primary sponsors for only a certain numbered block of races per season.

The reason: overall, sponsoring a finite number of races (anywhere from, say, six to 16) is much cheaper and an easier pill to swallow for sponsors, particularly when questioned about return on investment by their shareholders.

And with significant changes likely to come to the sport next season, including a revamped schedule, the possibility of several venue changes within the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as well as more rules and equipment changes, the nine initial owner members of the RTA are understandably looking out for themselves both individually and collectively.

But with lawyers now involved, the hoped-for amicable relationship gives the appearance that things are already starting to tug at the seams.

Few have discussed the power the RTA could potentially amass in its one-for-all, all-for-one mantra. It’s not unthinkable that if NASCAR continues to struggle at the box office and in TV ratings, that RTA may try to exert and wield some pretty powerful clout:

  • Like forcing NASCAR to deviate from its “our way or the highway” mindset that has been in place for 65 years.
  • Like forcing NASCAR to give team owners significantly more power, perhaps a prelude to the long-talked about possibility of adding franchising to give owners more of a say in the way the sport operates.
  • And the biggest potential possibility of the RTA: If the owners stay united and take a hard line stance and force the issue, they could eventually demand the power to oust or retain key NASCAR officials, including France and Helton.

That last possibility could also potentially be why both sides are now starting to lawyer up. While the intention is supposed to be amicable and formal, the end result could be something entirely different.

After all, team owners in NASCAR have the least power overall of any other major professional sport. Unlike in other sports, NASCAR team owners don’t have the ability to hire or fire the sanctioning body’s top executives, don’t have voting privileges when it comes to sanctioning body decisions, have no say in what rules can be changed (although owners do have input, NASCAR doesn’t have to listen to them), and have only the limited power that the sanctioning body gives them.

Up to this point, the France family-run and privately-owned business model has worked well. Well, let’s clarify that: it’s worked well up until about 2008, when the economy went south and NASCAR’s fortunes, popularity and TV ratings began to go with it.

But I’m not saying France, Helton and others have been the cause of NASCAR’s downfall in recent years. On the contrary.

France and Helton and those under them have done a good job when faced with some very trying circumstances and situations – certainly circumstances and situations that most other sports leagues have not had to deal with as much.

NASCAR’s top officials have worked diligently to improve safety, control costs as best they can, brought parity to the performance of race cars and trucks while also making the overall racing better, and have worked hard to attract new sponsors and businesses to the sport.

They’ve worked at trying to convince hotel chains and chambers of commerce in various locales that NASCAR visits to not gouge fans for room costs on race weekends, lest that not only hurts the fans, it also hurts the overall sport and the businesses themselves.

They’ve worked to keep the sport viable and relevant. They’ve worked at alternative ways to get the sport’s message across when countless media outlets have all but forgotten coverage of NASCAR events and news. Whereas particularly newspapers used to devote hundreds of column inches to yearly NASCAR coverage in the past, now most of those same papers will run maybe a paragraph or two at best (some even less, giving nothing more than a one-sentence “report” of who won that week’s race).

Sadly, while NASCAR certainly loses in that instance, it’s the fans that lose the most because they’re deprived of the kind of expansive media coverage that helped make them fans in the first place.

While I was optimistic and hopeful that the RTA and NASCAR relationship would be good for the sport, the fact that we will now have third party attorneys doing the “communicating” between both sides is both foreboding and ominous.

We can hope for the best, but right now the best is starting to look quite concerning.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

WATCH LIVE: IndyCar at Phoenix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Coverage of the fourth round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, takes place today starting at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after an encore presentation of Phoenix qualifying, which begins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Rick Allen will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 6 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, so 9 p.m. to midnight ET.

Each of the top three drivers on the grid, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and JR Hildebrand, seek their first wins of the year. The first three race winners start fourth (Josef Newgarden), 10th (points leader Sebastien Bourdais) and 11th (James Hinchcliffe).

Track position is expected to be key for the 250-lap race, the first oval event of the season, with passing projected to be difficult – albeit not impossible.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • On the inside of Row 3, is Simon Pagenaud positioned to secure his first oval victory?
  • Will any of the Hondas be able to make significant inroads on the Chevrolets?
  • Is anyone going to be able to make enough gains on pit road to move up the order?

The starting lineup is below:

Monaco apartment bet gives extra spice to race for P5 in Russia

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Remember that episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler go up against Rachel and Monica in a crazy quiz that ends in them swapping apartments for a while?

Well, Formula 1 might be doing its own version on Sunday in Russia.

With Ferrari and Mercedes over one second per lap clear of the rest of the pack, the top four positions seem settled, leaving Williams and Red Bull to battle for P5.

Red Bull has been the third-quickest team for much of the season so far, yet Williams looks more competitive in Russia, with Felipe Massa charging to sixth place in qualifying to split Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

“I predicted them to be quick here. It’s been one of their stronger circuits the last few years, and Massa’s always been pretty handy around here,” Ricciardo said of Williams.

“He got close, split Max and myself. I expect that battle to remain tomorrow. Not expecting to have the battle for the win, I think that’s between Ferrari and Mercedes, but we could have a nice little battle within ourselves for the top five.”

To add an extra twist to things, it turns out that Ricciardo, Massa and Verstappen all live inside the same apartment complex in Monaco – so why not add some extra incentive to the battle?

“I was saying whoever maybe wins our battle tomorrow can get the… Massa or Verstappen, they’ve both got pretty good-sized apartments, so maybe they can give the winner their apartment for the weekend as a bit of a token gesture!” Ricciardo joked to NBCSN after the session.

“Yeah I can give a good party and I will join,” Verstappen added.

Massa laughed before saying: “I hope I will win and I cannot give!’

The race between Red Bull and Williams may be tight, but somehow we doubt remembering that the TV guide goes to Miss Chanandeler Bong or that his job is a transpon… transponster (“that’s not even a word!”) will be much help to Ricciardo, Massa or Verstappen on Sunday.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Saturday edition (VIDEO)

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Life as a rookie in Formula 1 is always tough, but for Williams’ Lance Stroll, his arrival on the grid has been particularly challenging.

Entering F1 as its second-youngest debutant and after an extensive private testing program with Williams last year, big things were expected of Stroll when he made his debut in Australia.

However, his first three races in F1 have been far from ideal, all of them ending in retirement.

The DNF is Australia was the result of a brake issue, while incidents in China and Bahrain – both of which were hard to pin on Stroll – mean the Canadian is without a classified finish to his name.

So how has he dealt with the struggles? To find out, Will Buxton brings you a special edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ to lift the lid on Stroll’s start to life in F1.

You can watch the video in full above.

JR Hildebrand returns in career-best third on grid at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.

In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.

“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.

“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”

Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”

That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.

“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.

“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.

“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.

“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.

“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”

Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.

“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.

“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”

Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.